Playing wind controller in a pit orchestra (part 1 of 2)

Recently, I played in a pit orchestra in a production of Seussical the Musical (based on the children’s books by Dr. Seuss). Seussical is composed through, so it is a lot of music: the orchestral score runs to about 400 pages, where most musicals have about 200!

The orchestra has 18 players, but since the instruments do not completely match the demands from the original score, almost all of it was arranged by our musical director. [Another musical director, Conrad Askland, has some nice blog posts from his point of view.] The players are either professionals, semi-pro’s or accomplished amateurs. The orchestra occupation is: 1st violin, 2nd violin, cello, clarinet, 1st flute, 2nd flute/soprano sax/alto sax, soprano sax/alto sax/baritone sax, bass clarinet, 1st trumpet/flugelhorn, 2nd trumpet/flugelhorn, trombone, piano/keyboard, keyboard, electric guitar/acoustic guitar/ukelele, bass guitar, drums, percussion, and myself on tenor sax and wind controller.

Seussical was the 14th production of this musical group; it was my first, but most of the orchestra has been there for several years already. How I came to join the group is quite funny: because some of their players had quit after last year’s production, they were looking for new players. My girlfriend (who plays the bass clarinet) e-mailed them saying I played soprano sax, tenor sax, and oh yeah, some other thing called a wind controller. Literally five minutes later I had an e-mail back which said: “Wind controller! Please join! Our musical director has been wanting one of these since 5 years!” Not quite what you’d normally expect. ๐Ÿ˜‰

What followed was an intense e-mail conversation between the musical director and myself about the possibilities, what sounds I would normally use, etc. It ended with him visiting me at my house where we talked about it in great detail, with me demonstrating the various options and abilities. (It turns out he had lived together with a wind controller player during his studies at the Royal College of Music in London.)

When I arrived at the first rehearsal, everyone was very interested in my wind controller. In fact, throughout the whole production period I received nothing but positive responses, from the orchestra, actors, singers, dancers, production team, theatre techs and whoever else happened to be nearby and wondered what it was I was playing. Nobody said “what a silly toy, that isn’t a real instrument”; quite the opposite: they all wanted to know how it works and what you can do with it, and were very complimentary about it! One theatre tech hurried down to the pit after the premiere to ask me everything about it; after hearing me play he was seriously considering getting one himself.

Seussical sometimes calls for some really funny sounds. The sounds I got to play were these, ranging from the regular into the obscure; the descriptions are as they were written in my sheet music:

  • piccolo (there’s a lot of piccolo in Seussical)
  • oboe
  • bassoon
  • clarinet
  • full warm string section + octave above
  • stacked 5ths string harmonics
  • hard strings
  • harp + octave above, lots of sustain
  • lush choir + 5th with tinkle
  • vocal doo
  • scary voices
  • tinkle bell
  • small bells with lots of resonance
  • glass shards with delay
  • very tinkly/bubbly sound with echo
  • ghostly shimmering breathy sound

The trick here is to really know your synth module (mine is a Yamaha MU100R with PLG-VL and PLG-AN plugins), and keep your sound module reference handbooks close by. The musical director gave me a lot of freedom in that respect, and trusted me to come up with something appropriate every time. During rehearsal he would say things like: “Is that your tinkly/bubbly sound?ย Sounds great!” or “I need a little more sustain on the harp.” or “How does that sound when played an octave higher?”; all in all he was mostly very pleased with what I did. Still, finding and tweaking the right sounds can be very time consuming, so keep that in mind.

In the next part I will dive into some of the lessons I learned along the way.

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4 Responses to Playing wind controller in a pit orchestra (part 1 of 2)

  1. Art says:

    This is really interesting. Your musical director was very supportive. I’m especially encouraged that he was willing to ask for some simple experiments around the voices instead of just “making do” with what you had in the synth. Yet I hope he was equally understanding if something didn’t get better with voice tweaks. As you said, the smartest thing is to really know your sound module/synth.

    How much of a pain was it hauling your amp, synth, and controller each night? That’s the part I like the least. Vastly more gear than just carrying a sax or flute. Were you able to leave the amp there each night?

    Thanks for the post. Part 2 sounds interesting!

  2. gertjan says:

    Our musical director was very supportive and understanding indeed! He knew the limits, and was not disappointed if it didn’t turn out 100% perfect (the string harmonics sound is very difficult to get right).

    The group has their own practice room, where I could leave my amp (a small practice amp, not my regular keyboard amp). Some rehearsals were at another location; the stage hands would transport everything we needed (which was a lot, especially for the percussionist!), so no need for me to schlepp my amp around.

    During the performance period I could leave my keyboard amp (the big, heavy Roland KC-300) in the pit. Some people even left their instruments in the dressing room (which would be locked every night), but I wouldn’t go that far. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    But yeah, us wind controller players seem to acquire more and more gear. That was a small misconception on the part of the interested on-lookers: “how very useful, you only need a wind controller and you can play anything”. If only… ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Pingback: From WindWorks Design: Wind controller in a pit orchestra | Bret Pimentel, woodwinds

  4. Art says:

    Gertjan wrote:
    > the stage hands would transport everything we needed

    Wow, I dream of that day. Like you, I schlep my own gear, whether it’s lighting gear (a van’s worth) or my wind controller, synth (VL1m), and amp. And of course I insist on having a spare of everything for a gig. I learned this from Bob Norton ( When asked to provide technology for a gig (lighting or music), telling the client that something is broken is not acceptable. So for my music gigs, I carry a spare wind controller, a spare synth (a JV1010 or old WT11), and a small practice amp. I suppose I can get an EWI400s and use the internal synth if my VL1m goes down, but compared to lugging my 4U rack VL1m around, the JV1010 is trivial to keep tucked in my gig bag. Likewise for the small practice amp which in larger venues serves as my monitor amp.